“I told them to fuck off and left.” AWOL and desertion in the Russian army are beating one record after another
Дмитрий Швец|Сергей Голубев
“I told them to fuck off and left.” AWOL and desertion in the Russian army are beating one record after another
4 March 2024, 12:04

Art: Anna Makarova / Mediazona

Get Lost, an anti-war project that helps Russians flee from the army, declared this past February 29 Desertion Day. “We were being told that deserters are traitors and wimps. We don’t agree,” the activists write. “Right now, when the Russian army only brings destruction, the refusal to serve becomes a gesture of courage and love to one’s country.” Eager to support this initiative, Mediazona tells stories of those who refuse to take part in an unjust war and those who help them.

Get Lost helps Russian soldiers who are potentially facing charges of AWOL or desertion—people who decided not to participate in the war in Ukraine. The project’s founder, Grigory Sverdlin, was the head of Nochlezhka, an initiative to help the homeless, for ten years, but left Russia after the start of the full-scale invasion.

According to Sverdlin, Get Lost has already helped 520 military personnel desert. Approximately 70% of them went abroad, and the rest are hiding in Russia. In just two years of war, he says, the project received over 24,000 requests, of which 2,086 were related to desertion and illegal border crossing. January 2024 set a record: 284 people sought help with desertion. A year ago, in January 2023, the number was only 28.

Authorities claim that conscripts—Russia drafts hundreds of thousands of young men a year—do not fight in Ukraine. Approximately a half of potential deserters, according to Get Lost’s estimate, are servicemen who signed contracts after the start of the war, 10% — before the war, and roughly 30% are mobilised soldiers. “Contract soldiers aren’t always volunteers who were subjects to propaganda or were recruited. There also are conscripts who are forced to sign a contract,” Sverdlin points out.

“Why do people write to us? They’ve seen enough of the horrors of the war. They’ve seen the attitude towards people as consumables and cannon fodder. They realised that they were not fighting against the 'fascists', that what they were told on TV was a lie. They often had illnesses that are supposed to prevent people from serving, but that did not bother anyone at all. They are writing to us now because they didn’t know about us before. They didn’t know who to turn to. They didn’t know in general that they had the opportunity to write to someone who would get them out of the war.”

Another common reason for desertion, says Sverdlin, is lack of rotation: soldiers loose all hope to get out of the front lines.

Two examples of how soldiers desert

Get Lost shared recordings of two conversations with Mediazona: two men wanted a consult and both had since left Russia.

One of them is an orphan. He served in the army as a conscript and then signed a contract that expired in 2019. By the beginning of the partial “mobilisation” in late September of 2022, he worked as a bartender in the capital of one of the Russian regions. He received a summons and ended up in the city of Schastia (translates as “happiness”) in the occupied Luhansk region.

“On the first assignment, all of us almost died. I immediately realised where I was, all my ideas collapsed. We arrived near Kreminna in December. Spent the New Year in the trenches,” the former bartender recalls. “They brought us to an open field, drew squares on the ground and said: dig trenches here. Just so you understand, we didn’t even have time to dig in, they started giving us shit. I don’t understand: if our troops were in front of us, then who was shooting?! Our platoon was abandoned, I led them out myself.”

He spent a year on the front lines and now says that in a week near Robotyne, Russia lost an entire division. Once, when a forest caught fire near the mortar position, the former bartender and other conscripts were sent to put out the fire with sapper shovels. But their car got in an accident on the way, and he broke a rib. He was given a bandage and returned to the front line; there he received a new injury—according to the young man, his “whole side was broken.” One day, his commanders noticed his condition.

“They’re telling me, come on, go back. Where? It’s the middle of the night, I don’t even know where we went. Somehow I got there under fire and crawled about a kilometer and a half. The commander said to wait, they won’t call the car.” Having finally reached the evacuation point, the bartender was hospitalized, then received 30 days of leave and deserted.

Another Get Lost client is a 50-year-old villager from the south of Russia who used to work as a dispatch clerk. One day, the head of the village called the man in and said that “found him a job.” An employee of the military draft office was waiting in the room.

“They promised that I would work on civilian things. I agreed: I had to sign a contract, but work on a construction site, no SMO. I fell for it,” the man recalls. “It seems that one is a representative of a military organization, the second is a representative of our government. There were doubts, but everything unfolded very quickly... There were three of us, we signed [contracts] and that was it. It was nearly past business hours. And when they brought me to the unit the next day, I realised that I’d simply been duped.”

He didn’t make it to the front: during training he was wounded when an explosive device went off and received a thermal burn. In the medical unit, the man learned from other injured soldiers that many of them had also been promised jobs as cooks or mechanics in the rear. Upon returning from the hospital, the man wanted to take time off to go home for a while, but he was not allowed to do that.

“I told them to fuck off and left,” the man says. He was soon detained by military police. He remembered he had an ulcer and tried to get decommissioned for health reasons, but that didn’t work. According to him, while he was in the hospital, a military investigator named Zheglov brought him an indictment for AWOL.

“I’m telling them: lock me up! No, we won’t put you in jail, we’ll give you a suspended sentence. Just say at the trial, what we will tell you to say: that you repent, you are ready to atone for your guilt, and you will continue to serve,” the man recalls.

While awaiting trial, he contacted Get Lost, and activists helped him get out of the country.

Schastia, Ukraine. 1 March 2022. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

Deserters in court. The stats

Russian soldiers who decided to end things with the army but stayed in the country, often find themselves in court. The number of “crimes against military service” cases since the start of the full-scale invasion in Ukraine is rising with unprecedented speed.

1,001 cases of the most popular “military crime,” AWOL, made it to courts in 2022 (Article 337 of the Russian Criminal Code). That’s one and a half times more than in pre-war 2021. But in 2023 there were 5,092 cases—and January 2024 set a new all-time record: 644 cases in just one month, and that’s with 10 days of holidays on New Year. Since the start of the year, 1,234 cases already made it to courts.

That being said, a very common punishment for AWOL is a suspended sentence: this allows to send convicts back to the front lines instead of a colony.

In desertion cases (Article 338) the trend is even more visible: 25 cases in 2022, 156 cases in 2023, and already half of that, 82 cases, since the start of this year.

Overall, since the start of the “partial mobilisation” in September of 2022, the courts received 6,308 AWOL cases (with decisions on 5,230 already made) and 194 desertion cases (134 decisions).

Lawyer and human rights activist Sergei Voinov told Mediazona that AWOL cases are more common not only because of the suspended sentences that allow to send soldiers back to the war, but because they are easier to argue in court. “In AWOL cases, the intent is to temporarily violate the rules of military service. And in desertion cases the intent is to completely evade. It’s more difficult to justify that the soldier wanted to leave service forever,” Voinov explains.

Another popular military crime is “failure to obey an order” (Article 332 of the Criminal Code). There were only five such cases in 2022, 428 in 2023, and in the first two months of this year, there are already 84 cases in courts. This article is used against soldiers who refuse to be dispatched to the front lines, it was barely used before the start of the full-scale invasion in Ukraine.

“There is no goal to pass a verdict. There is a goal to break a person so that he agrees to go to war”

Judging by the published verdicts, deserters often fall into the hands of the military police because, having fled from the front, they continue to use their mobile phones and bank cards. In one case, a deserter got a job as a taxi driver and registered with Yandex, the biggest Russian IT company that operates, among other things, a taxi service.

But it’s getting harder to return home from the war. For example, Mediazana covered a story of several soldiers from an airborne, who simply drove off from the front lines to Russia in July 2022. The FSB and military prosecution didn’t even tried to stop them because they were “totally freaked” by the soldiers’ stories of what’s happening on the front lines.

But later, the phenomenon of “zindans,” makeshift secret prisons or sometimes just pits, where refuseniks were kept until they agreed to return to the front, became widespread on the occupied territories. Gennady, a coordinator with the Conscientious Objector Movement, says that by the winter of 2024 control on the front lines became so overwhelming, that without assistance, deserters have no way of reaching Russia.

People who flee the army, if they have sufficient funds, often rent apartments in Donetsk, but it’s impossible to know in advance, how long you would have to hide from military police. According to Gennady, for deserters who get caught, a court hearing and penal colony is rather a fortunate outcome, albeit a rare one.

“The 121st Military Investigation Department operates there. Its address isn’t publicly listed anywhere, and they have some kind of special unit that deals with AWOL,” the Conscientious Objector Movement coordinator explains. “As far as I understand, there could be a huge number of reports and maybe even initiated cases, but they do not make it to courts. There is no goal to pass a verdict—there is a goal to break a person so that he agrees to go to war. These actions, unfortunately, are barbaric: when a person is caught, he is not even taken to the investigators, but to a unit where they are forced to agree to war.”

In one of the cases, a contract soldier who refused to fight was accused of refusing to obey an order (Article 332). But the court dismissed the case, because the soldier agreed to return to war.

Sometimes objectors and runaways are simply kept in the unit by force. In February 2022 Vladimir Frolov, a resident of the occupied city of Shakhtarsk who has an officially recognised disability, was mobilised by the authorities of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. He was wounded, but his commanding officers ordered him to return to the front. Frolov arrived at his unit on crutches and was locked up. In October he managed to run away, but was detained in late January.

“He was taken away by the military police. Now he’s in Petrovka, in a military unit. They are mocking him, forcing him to sign a contract and telling him that they will send him on an assault mission. There’s a paper that says he is a ‘volunteer,’ but he didn’t sign anything, didn’t take an oath, and wasn’t given a military ID. I found out that they had already found a military uniform for him and that he was already assigned to an assault team,” Frolov’s wife Anna told the media Astra.

The lawyer who is helping Frolov and asked to keep his anonymity told Mediazona that the military investigation doesn’t show much interest in the disabled soldier. They aren’t even trying to start a case against him. “He is being forced to stay in his own unit, in the assault team,” the lawyer says. “They need the soldier more than they need the case.”

Editors: Maxim Litavrin, Dmitry Tkachev

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